“I used to buy Backstage when I was a little kid and look at open-call auditions just for fun, because it’s not like my parents were ever going to let me go to any,” New York native Lena Dunham says of her early show-business aspirations. “That just seemed like the closest I was going to get.”
So instead of auditioning for Broadway plays or Hollywood blockbusters, Dunham wrote, directed, and cast herself as the lead in her own low-budget movie, 2010’s award-winning “Tiny Furniture.” Then she followed that feat by creating a television show. At 26, Dunham was nominated for four Emmy awards this year as the writer, director, executive producer, and star of the hit HBO series “Girls.”
“When I started writing,” she says, “I was thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have anyone to play this part, so I guess I’ll do it this time.’ And I kind of deluded myself into thinking the acting wasn’t a huge part of the process for me, but it really is a passion of mine.”
Dunham plays “Girls” protagonist Hannah Horvath, the center of a group of girls in their early 20s living in New York City. Throughout the show’s 10-episode first season, Hannah and her friends experience the good and bad (well, mostly bad—bad decisions, bad jobs, bad relationships, bad sex) of big-city life as they stumble toward adulthood.
“Hannah’s like me sometimes, but lagging three years behind,” Dunham says. “I know how she’d behave in a given situation, even in situations I have not necessarily been through. I’ll think that I handled something years ago; then suddenly I’ll find myself learning from an experience Hannah just had onscreen. The symbiosis between what’s happening on camera and off has been interesting.”
Because “Girls” is based partly on Dunham’s experiences, though, she at first found it difficult to separate herself from her onscreen alter ego.
“It gets easier as the character becomes more developed and as I start to understand the differences between me being me and me playing her, but it’s a challenge,” she says. “You have moments where you feel like ‘I just had a really hard day,’ and then you realize ‘No, I had a really hard day in character.’ And I never thought I’d say that, because it seems like it’s the province of Daniel Day-Lewis doing ‘Lincoln’ to be able to feel those big, trapped-in-character moments. But it’s really hard to go into another person’s challenging psychology every day. You come out feeling tired and broken.”
“Girls” has been the subject of harsh critical backlash, though most has been aimed at the show’s perceived narcissism, nepotism, and lack of diversity rather than a certain untrained actor’s raw and naturalistic lead performance. (“I mean, I took theater classes in high school,” Dunham says, “but I think everyone has done acting training if that qualifies.”) While working on the show’s second season, which premieres Jan. 13, Dunham found that acting became an escape from the stress of wearing so many hats on set.
“Part of the process that I love is that although I’m having a hard day—between the reception of the show and what it’s like to have this job, I’m a little tired and I’m a little beaten down—when I’m acting, I get to completely exist in the head of this character whose issues are totally other than mine,” Dunham says. “I think to myself, ‘Hannah doesn’t have these responsibilities. Hannah’s worries are in a totally different place, and I can just be here with her in her head.’ And it’s a great feeling.”